Brain science, Psychology and Cruelty

Though science hasn’t found a specific “cruelty region” in the brain, there are some things we know about how the brain works that may shed light on cruelty.

For instance, in her book “Cruelty”, neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor says that the way our brains work means that stimuli-even the terrible stimuli of human suffering-can have decreasing impact on us simply by happening again and again.

Our decisions are made by competing neural assemblies, with the winner inhibiting the others. So Kathleen says that a soldier who commits a war crime has competing patterns in his head – some of them from his moral upbringing – but these patterns may not have enough votes on the neural committees which take the decision to act. The winning pattern inhibits the others, and the moral pattern simply may not be strong enough to inhibit the pattern laid down by military training. Moral patterns may be weakened by a gradual process of demonizing the target group or may never have been strong. And they may become active too slowly – too slow to stop shooting a bullet.

On top of this, ‘bolstered by their connections with other neural patterns, patterns which ground some beliefs can grow strong enough to escape the influence of inconvenient truth. ..evidence and reasoned argument come to seem irrelevant’

“Faced with inputs that would force less committed others to adjust or abandon their ideas, a strong believer may find it less painful to adjust (or sometimes abandon) that bit of the world which gave rise to the offending inputs. World-shaping may lead to abhorrent cruelty, self-protective for the perpetrators.”

The above may not seem to give us any practical advice, but then Kathleen says:

“If we are to reduce the prevalence of cruel behavior…we will need to change the incentives for being cruel….”No amount of rewarding people for good behavior will necessarily stop them committing bad behavior. To do that requires the inhibiting awareness that bad behavior is liable to be punished. And to be effective the punishment must hurt….Poor social enforcement…undermines the ancient link between hurting and being hurt in return.”

Another book has something to say on this. Michael Gazzaniga’s book Who’s In Charge? says that experiments show that in the absence of punishment, group cooperation cannot sustain itself in the presence of free-riders (that is people who take advantage of cooperation but do not cooperate themselves). This fact is not really relevant to this post on ‘cruelty’ but does show that there is a reason we sometimes want to inflict punishment on non-cruel people.

We can leave neuroscience behind and look at practical psychology, and here Kathleen makes some points as well.

Often cruelty is done to people who are supposed to be “inhumanely depraved monsters who do not understand ‘normal’ morality.” (Blogger note: For instance, if you believe Jews drink Christian blood, you are likely to commit cruel acts toward those vampires in human form).

Says Kathleen: “in attempting to understand why ‘fanatical’ believers act as they do, we should perhaps bear in mind that in challenging their ideas we are in effect demanding that they change much of who they are.”

Cruel behavior may also bring social rewards. She gives the example of the cheering citizens of Kovno, who laughed and clapped as Jews were murdered in front of them, and this no doubt exerted similar effects on those who did the actual murders.

“Humor is one of the commonest rewards of cruelty. Laughter is a social bond, uniting perpetrators while locking out the already suffering victim.”

My own experience is that humor can result in nasty imaginative permutations of what would be ordinary cruelty.

Kathleen says that cruelty “is the outcome of lazy and limited human decision-making.” In other words, we should not glamorize it or make it exciting.

This makes me think of an interesting point. When the U.S. dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, it caused much suffering and death. Wikipedia says:
“Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. The Hiroshima prefectural health department estimates that, of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness.”
Now I do believe that all this cruelty was necessary to end the war, and to save the lives of a large number of soldiers on each side who would have died as they battled from island to island. So that means that I believe cruelty and mass killing of civilians is necessary, under certain circumstances.

Not all historians agree with me. For instance, Daniel Goldhagen, in his book Worse Than War says that Hiroshima was not needed, and the Japanese would have surrendered anyway.
Goldhagen’s book talks about large scale massacres in history, and one of the big dangers he sees today is from “political Islam”. It itself can be a genocidal force. Judging from what Kathleen Taylor says in her book, she is probably reluctant to view Moslem minorities in Western countries as susceptible to the genocidal tendencies that Goldhagen sees in “political Islam”.
So you can study evil phenomena, and yet disagree on specific attitudes to specific events or people.


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